I recently finished an excellent book by Jane Glover named Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music. Despite the title, this is not a salacious book at all but an excellent one that concentrates on Mozart’s relationships with his sister, his parents, and his wife and her family, and how well Mozart portrayed women in his operas, which was quite ahead of its time.
There is much in the book that I would love to get into, but today I would like to talk about the woman in the book that stuck with me the most after I had finished it – Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart (1751-1829), Wolfgang’s (1756-1791) sister – the only other child that survived out of seven births in the family.
“Virtuosic.” “A prodigy.” “Genius.”
These words were written in the 1760s about Nannerl. When she toured Europe as a pianist, young Maria Anna wowed audiences in Munich, Vienna, Paris, London, the Hague, Germany and Switzerland. “My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have … with incredible precision and so excellently,” her father, Leopold, wrote in a letter in 1764. “What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.”
Wolfgang and Nannerl were extremely close most of their lives, as you would expect from two young children who traveled all of Europe together when very young, with a demanding, overbearing father. They had their own secret made up kingdom (He was the King, she was the Queen), and shared the learning of languages and music while growing up. She kept diaries of these trips, and indeed for much of her life, and it is from these and the many family letters that she also kept that we have learned so much of Wolfgang. (They also both shared the family trait for very scatological humor).
Unfortunately, we know less of Nannerl herself. Her diary and letter writing style was very detached – writing down what was done and what was happening, with lots of lists, but very little of her own inner thoughts. Throughout his life, Wolfgang would add entries into her diary, teasing her, making comments and jokes and often even poking fun at her detached writing style. In the diaries and letters, the love and admiration they had for each other is easily evident, as is their personalities – Nannerl the ‘responsible and serious’ elder sister, and Wolfgang the brilliant and emotional younger brother.
But what about the music? We know that Nannerl was Wolfgang’s equal as a pianist – and Wolfgang was known as one of the greatest keyboard players in Europe. Was she Mozart’s equal as a composer? We don’t know. We do have letters from Wolfgang encouraging her composition (In a letter from Italy, dated July 7, 1770 (he was 14, she was 19), he wrote “I am amazed! I had no idea you were capable of composing in such a gracious way. In a word, your Lied is beautiful. I beg you, try to do these things more often.”), but nothing survives that we know she has composed.
Unfortunately, Nannerl was a woman living with an overbearing, conservative father. In 1769, when she was 18 years old and eligible to marry, her father ended her days on the road. While he and Wolfgang toured Italy, Nannerl stayed behind in Salzburg. As it says in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “from 1769 onwards she was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age.” She was not even allowed to become a performer by her father.
Wolfgang was finally able to get out from the thumb of their domineering father by moving to Vienna and eventually marrying Constanze Weber, though his father’s disapproving letters followed him to Vienna. Nannerl however had no such escape, being married off by her father to another domineering man much older then she in 1784, who already had multiple children whom she was obliged to raise.
Slightly estranged from Wolfgang the last years of his life (she, probably under the influence of their father, also disapproved of his wife), Nannerl reconciled with Costanze after Wolfgang died. These two women (Nannerl and Wolfgang) preserved his legacy – saving his manuscripts, family letters, records and diaries.
There are many who fictionalize and romantacize Maria Anna in books and film, but I won’t do that. I don’t think she would have liked that.
Was she the equal of her brother? In my opinion only, I do not believe so. She was his equal as a musician and performer, there is no doubt – and that is saying quite a lot. She could have been one of the top performers in Europe. However, Wolfgang’s compositional genius was known at an early age, and the incredible creativity of his mind was apparent in his letters and everything he did, from memorizing the Pope’s secret mass after one hearing at age 9, through writing an opera’s overture at the last minute. But – not being Wolfgang’s equal as a composer is no slight. In my mind, no one equaled his musical genius overall. And I believe that his genius was nurtured and grown by having such a talented, encouraging and close sister who shared unique experiences at such a young age. There is no hint ever of competition or envy between the two – simply encouragement and pride in each direction.
It is clear is that Maria Anna and Wolfgang both admired and loved each other dearly. He wrote for her often, and always sent her his piano pieces for her to play. He wrote duets for the two of them when they were young, and she staunchly (along with Constanze) saved his manuscripts and stood up for her little brother until the end of her days. She should not be forgotten.